Can a state force pharmacists to prescribe abortion-inducing drugs at the expense of their religious beliefs? This is the central issue in a case the Supreme Court may agree to hear in its next term.
In 2007, the state of Washington passed a law requiring all pharmacies to deliver “all lawfully prescribed drugs or devices” in a timely manner to all customers. This “delivery rule” contains several exemptions, such as business or convenience reasons for not stocking certain drugs, but there is no exemption for religious objections.
Ralph’s Thriftway, a small family-run grocery store and pharmacy, was investigated by the state for refusing to stock any form of abortifacient, such as plan B. The Stormans family, which owns Ralph’s, cites religious beliefs as its justification. The Stormans believe that by dispensing these drugs, they would be aiding in the destruction of human life, directly contradicting their Christian faith.
Although Ralph’s does not carry plan B, if a customer requests it, employees provide a list of local pharmacies and drug stores that carry the drug.
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There are over 30 other pharmacies and drug stores that carry plan B within 5 miles of Ralph’s, all of which are included on their referral list. Thus, not a single Ralph’s customer in search of plan B has ever been denied timely access to it.
Abortion rights activists learned about Ralph’s conscience-based referrals and began sending test shoppers to the store, who filed complaints after they received a referral rather than a filled prescription. This led to an investigation, and Ralph’s was threatened with losing its pharmacy license. Subsequently, the Stormans filed suit against the state of Washington, arguing that the delivery rule violates the First Amendment’s free exercise clause, among other claims.
A federal district court ruled in favor of the Stormans. The judge noted:
“A pharmacy is permitted to refuse to stock oxycodone because it fears robbery, but the same pharmacy cannot refuse to stock plan B because it objects on religious grounds. … the secular refusal is permitted and the religious refusal is not.”
On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the district court decision.
The panel found that the law was rationally related to the state’s legitimate interest in “ensuring that its citizens have safe and timely access to their lawful … medications.”
Now the Stormans have petitioned the Supreme Court to review their case.
Washington state, in an attempt to force a secular set of values upon its citizens, has violated the First Amendment.
The government should not be able to force Americans to set aside their deeply held beliefs simply because they step outside the four walls of a church.
Elizabeth Slattery is a legal fellow in the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.